Elian Stefa left his native Albania as a young child but one enduring memory of his early years there was the concrete bunkers liberally strewn across the country’s landscape. These ‘Concrete Mushrooms’ became the focus of a project undertaken with compatriot Gyler Mydyti which intends to understand them and their evolution in parallel with Albanian life.
The project is comprised of many elements, beginning with an assessment of the bunker’s origins and an attempt to understand just how many of them existed and still do. Stefa and Mydyti estimate that some 750,000 are scattered across Albania’s 29,000 square kilometres having been built over the course of 30 years during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Examples of, and proposals for re-use of the bunkers also feature in the project, along with a documentary and photographic collaborations. With a book soon to be released and a number of high-profile exhibitions on the horizon, Stefa and Mydyti now have support from the Ministry of Culture in Albania, as their plans to create a platform for discussing Albania’s past gathers pace. We caught up with Stefa and explored both his personal connection to the bunkers and his hopes for the project.
Photograph by Alicja Dobrucka ©
The bunkers are (in a sense) a visible legacy of Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship in Albania. How are they perceived by Albanian people these days?
After the collapse of the communist regime, the bunkers carried a heavy stigma for many years. The totalitarian regime was a heavy burden on the Albanian society, with repercussions which spanned from morality and freedom, to what’s for dinner tonight. The bunkers are a physical manifestation of the regime’s propaganda machine and the psychological warfare that was waged not only externally but also towards the Albanian population itself, remaining as a tough (as concrete) reminder of the hardships that we’ve had to endure and the challenges that still lie ahead. But time heals all wounds; and the bunkers gradually transformed from these untouchable shelters which symbolized the love and protection our great leaders gave us, to the useless and troublesome relics of a difficult past, and eventually to boulder-like elements of the albanian landscape which block the tractors from plowing the land. Nowadays the bunkers are disappearing, some Albanians are happy, some are sad, but most are indifferent.
They are scattered all around the country, how did you experience them as a child? Can you remember when you were first told what they were?
Well, I was quite young when my family emigrated from Albania, but I do remember them being excellent spots for hide and seek; at least the ones that were not soiled from being used as public toilets.
I understand that the bunkers are beginning to disappear, was that something that influenced the project at all?
No matter how hard they try, the bunkers won’t disappear too quickly. We cannot ignore the fact that our world is inherited. We don’t stand in isolation from a primitive and brutal past. Our world is not so civilized that we have conquered the tyranny of our own narcissism: we stand not only on the shoulders of giants but on the corpses of slaves. The point is not to feel trapped by the actions of our ancestors, but to acknowledge the web of subtle and not so subtle influences that play with our perception and shape our language and actions. The effort to apprehend these subtleties is part of what it means to grow and evolve, as a person and a society. That’s what the Concrete Mushrooms project is about.
Photograph by Alicja Dobrucka ©
Were you not somewhat daunted by the task of somehow mapping the bunkers, can you be sure of the number of them?
We were always conscious of the fact that mapping the bunkers would be an arduous, even impossible task, but the idea was not to have a thorough map of the bunkers in Albania, but to engage people and make them notice the bunkers again by helping us map them.
How effective or not would you consider their design in terms of their intended use?
I don’t think i’ll ever be able to say with certainty what the real motivation was for creating these objects; i cannot tell you if they were built for territorial fortification, or if it was simply a method for the dictator Enver Hoxha to keep the population too busy for 30 years to do anything against the regime. What i can say with certainty is that they were completely anachronistic as a fortification technique. The rest of the world was making technological leaps in their military structures while our leadership was expecting the untrained population to pick up outdated weapons and hide in these bunkers, hoping that the expired bullets would eventually chip at the armor enemies which would never be within range.
Who ‘owns’ the bunkers these days?
In theory they belong to the Ministry of Defense, as do all military structures; but you would never be able to tell that looking at the bunkers now. The issue is quite central though as all land was confiscated after WWII and the rise in power of the Albanian Labor Party (previously: the Communist Party). The regime had complete freedom to do as they wished on the whole territory, and that they did. When the 90’s rolled in, previous landowners rightfully claimed their property and the land was returned to them. But what about not only the bunkers, but also the other infrastructural and military elements that were scattered on this lands? The beauty of informality in a developing country… it is now unclear who the bunkers belong to; the government has bigger fish to fry.
Photograph by Alicja Dobrucka ©
Once they became obsolete with regard to their intended function, how long did they sit there before people started to re-appropriate them?
They immediately started being used as public bathrooms and trash bins; perhaps it was a subconscious act of belated rebellion. Eventually, isolated cases of transformation started popping up mostly in the countryside, where they were used as chicken coops, silos, and stables. There have been also a few cases where over time, the larger bunkers were transformed into proper homes by people in need.
What are some of the most novel examples you have seen of people re-using the structures?
There are a couple of bunker restaurants by the beach in Durres. You have to see these things, they started out as toast makers within the bunker, and eventually the owners built on top of them, using the bunkers as foundations and sometimes reaching 3 or 4 stories. You can’t even see the bunkers any more except for the subtle round shape of these structures.
In your time living away from Albania, has this project been a means of re-connecting with your homeland?
Most definitely! The investigation that was necessary for the project made me discover an incredible story– that of my parents’ generation. It helped me understand better not only my country and my roots, but also my family, and the environment and mentality that shaped them.
Converscene by Niku Alex Mucaj | Photograph by Gina Folly ©
The book of the project is soon to be released, there is an exhibition in Basel next month along with the Albanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale where the project will be exhibited, how else/where else would you like to see the project realized?
Raising awareness on the issue is one of the main goals of the Concrete Mushrooms project, so i would say that these exhibitions and the book launch are major milestones! Concrete Mushrooms is mostly a metaphysical project, a platform for discussion on dealing with the past in Albania, so I would say that we are reaching the necessary critical mass to turn this into a proper movement– ideological, artistic, business, whatever… We have already collaborated with various artists and activists in Albania, providing them with the technical documentation and media support and exposure for the transformation of the bunkers.
One of my favorite bunker transformation projects was just completed: Niku Alex Mucaj’s ‘Converscene’ (above) which uses the domes of three “Qender Zjarri” bunkers to make an open-air stage for the Tirana Ekspres cultural space. These collaborations will be present at the ‘Concrete in Common’ exhibition at the Kunst Raum Riehen in Basel, and at the Albanian Pavilion in the Venice Biennale. Now that we have institutional support from the Ministry of Culture in Albania, we are planning to deploy the project for our Concrete Mushrooms campsite transformation in the Albanian Riviera, which turns the bunkers into permanent concrete camping tents. Historical tourism and beautiful landscapes, what more do you need?
For more on the project, head to the Facebook Page. For more photographs from Alicja Dobrucka check out her portfolio site.
By Alec Dudson